New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"American Buffalo"
Belasco Theatre (Broadway)

With two David Mamet plays now running on Broadway--both “American Buffalo” and “Speed-the-Plow”--a reassessment of the playwright seems in order. How well does Mamet work?

Not well, if one is to judge by this “American Buffalo.” Can it be that Mamet had not yet honed his skills with “Buffalo,” written in 1976 and one of his earliest plays? The story is indeed slow getting off the ground, waiting until the second act to transform endless talk into action.

But the fault, dear Brutus, may very well lie in this particular production. Though the production under Robert Falls’ direction sports three highly-respected performers, the piece clearly falters. Both Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment have achieved considerable recognition in film and television, and John Leguizamo is, well, John Leguizamo. Consider those hilarious, brilliant one-man shows which catapulted him to fame.

Each actor in his own way is indeed a fine performer—Cedric, with his down-to-earth style, Osment with his boyish sweetness and Leguizamo with his firecracker delivery. But it’s as if they were in alternative universes, each carrying on his own monologue. And, worse crime of all, no one captures the rhythm of Mamet’s unique language, the choppy, half-finished sentences which turn street talk into poetry.

The story involves three hustlers who talk their way through and around a planned burglary. Don (a junkshop owner), Bobby (his young gofer), and Teach (a pal who hangs out at Donny’s) are all typical Mamet losers, scraped from the bottom of the barrel. Their goal is to steal a Buffalo nickel (which may or may not have considerable value). But it is inevitable in a Mamet-driven world that their convoluted plans and random violence will come to naught.

Leguizamo, to his credit, is always in motion--tense, coiled, pacing the stage like a caged tiger. Here is a man whose swaggering self-assurance carries anger just beneath the surface. His anger is always on the ready, predictably bursting into violence at the height of the drama.

A strong portrayal, but one which Leguizamo’s own sense of the comic sometimes undermines. (Too often his comic antics, reflecting the hilarity of his earlier one-man shows, take the tension out of the moment. It is difficult to take Teach seriously when Leguizamo struts about, his head covered with pantyhose.

Though “American Buffalo” may not be the best of the Mamet canon, it can be highly effective in the right hands. The playwright’s unique vision and style is already in place, but gets short shrift in this misguided version.

--Irene Backalenick
November 18, 2008

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